40 Common Sayings And Their Unexpected Origins

Okay, we’re going to take the bull by the horns here: where do our weird phrases come from? You can wonder about their origins until the cows come home, but when you think about it, a lot of them sound like gibberish. There is some logic behind them though, so let’s get to the root of the problem and find out why we say some of the things we do!

1. “Break the ice”

“Meeting new people can be awkward, but try a joke to break the ice.” Although this phrase now means to break down uncomfortable situations, it actually had another meaning: to clear a path for boats by breaking the surface ice of frozen waters. And it was used figuratively, too, in this sense in medieval times too.

Yet its more “modern” use — if you can call the 17th century modern, that is — comes from Samuel Butler’s 1664 classic Hudibras, which read, “At last broke silence, and the Ice.” Its more straightforward meaning later came right back around when bespoke ice-breaking ships were dreamed up in the 19th century.

2. “Bite the bullet”

“New cars are expensive, but you might as well bite the bullet and pay for one.” Basically, accept the pain and do what needs to be done! Many people believe this saying comes from the days of surgery before anesthesia, when patients would chew on a wooden ‘billet’ stick to help withstand the pain.

It’s actually a bit more literal than that, though. When a soldier was punished with a multi-headed whip called a cat o’ nine tails, some would take pride in stopping themselves yelping — or becoming a “nightingale” — by chomping down on a bullet. But they probably later suffered both lash wounds and toothache.

3. “The ball is in your court”

“She let you know she wanted to date, and now the ball is in your court.” In other words, the decision has been passed to you. This is actually a relatively new phrase and only bounced into usage in the 1960s. Its origins are fairly straightforward, though.

It’s obviously a reference to a tennis game, where once the ball comes across to your side of the net, it’s your turn to play. Perhaps it’s surprising this idiom took so long to come into use, considering the first official tennis tournament took place in 1882. And its precursor, real tennis, dates back further still: it was invented in medieval times.

4. “Cut to the chase”

“You’ve been rambling on for a while now, so cut to the chase.” Or, to put it bluntly, get to the point; why dwell on the unnecessary? If you’re thinking the saying must come from an industry that moves at a breakneck pace, you’re right.

The phrase actually originates from the early days of the U.S. movie industry, specifically Hollywood Girl in 1929. Joseph Patrick McEvoy wrote in the script direction, “Jannings escapes... Cut to chase.” Just the important parts, please, time is money!